New Seminar Approach Aims to Help Students Succeed

Freshmen entering Saint Mary’s in the next academic year will encounter a first-year Seminar class in the spring that has been redesigned to give them a jump start on mastering the core reading, writing, critical thinking and speaking skills at the heart of the Seminar program. 

The new class is part of a revised sequence of four Seminar classes that will be unveiled over the next few years. The impetus for the change was a thorough reevaluation of the College’s educational goals that began in 2006 and resulted in a new Core Curriculum designed to deliver a more holistic approach to education based on the skills, knowledge and values we want our students to take away from their Saint Mary’s experience. 

The four-year sequence of classes will begin in the freshman year with “Critical Strategies and Great Questions” and then proceed to “Western Tradition I” and “Western Tradition II,” which will take sophomores and juniors from the Greek period through the 20th century. The final course, known as “The Global Conversation of the 20th and 21st Centuries,” will engage students in texts from around the world to prepare them for life in today’s global community.

The reading list for the first-year class forms a fascinating counterpoint, in which classical texts play off modern ones to emphasize the relevance of the ancient works to our modern concerns. Plato, Sophocles, Homer and Galileo rub shoulders with Virginia Woolf, Ursula LeGuin, Bruno Bettelheim and Rachel Carson.

Provost Beth Dobkin said the revisions in Collegiate Seminar preserve its most important characteristics:

  • Shared inquiry and student-driven discussion
  • Close reading of primary texts
  • A common reading list inspired by the Great Books tradition, and
  • Examination of the essential ideas and perennial questions of human existence.

At the same time, she added, the four-year approach provides “greater connections with the overall academic, social and spiritual development of students. For example, as they begin their first Seminar course, they will have enhanced support for their development in interpretive reading, analytic writing and critical thinking.”

The ultimate goal is to enhance students’ chances of succeeding at Saint Mary’s and prepare them for life beyond the College.  The Seminar program has been a key part of Saint Mary’s curriculum since 1942, but it has undergone many changes over the years. The first SMC “Great Books of the World” class debuted in 1941, and Seminar Studies, a then-radical educational reform based on a program at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., began a year later. The program was greatly reduced in 1946 as the College moved to accommodate a post-WWII surge in enrollment and was further simplified to four courses in 1983.

Despite the recent changes, the goal has remained the same, as expressed in the vision statement: to give students “a solid grounding in the world of ideas” and develop them as “curious, thoughtful members of an intellectual community.”